Dance, Review

Ballet Ariel’s Coppélia at Lakewood Cultural Center

A review by Robin McNeil

Saturday afternoon, May 10, I attended the matinee performance of the ballet Coppélia, by the French composer Léo Delibes (1836-1891). This exciting performance was presented by the Ballet Ariel, under the directorship of ballet dancer and choreographer, Ilena Norton. The performance was held at the Lakewood Cultural Center which seemed an ideal size for this production. Before I go any further I will quote from Norton’s bio statement on the Ballet Ariel website:

“Ilena Norton, Artistic and Executive Director, has directed the Ballet Ariel Company since 1998, and founded the Ballet Ariel School in 2001. She has choreographed many original ballets including Avoca-A Tale of Molly Brown, Fire Dances, and The Birth of Rock and Roll. Many of her professional ballets include student roles, and she has created original choreography for the annual student recitals. Students in the Ballet Ariel School have participated in many of Ballet Ariel’s productions and tours. She has been teaching in the Ballet Ariel School since 2001, and her students have successfully auditioned for multiple ballet company summer programs and are performing with professional ballet companies. The Ballet Ariel Director has a Bachelor’s Degree from Stanford University and a postgraduate education from Yale University and the University of Colorado in psychology and health. She studied ballet with Larry Boyette and many others. Mr. Boyette danced with the American Ballet Theater in the 1930s, and established a school in Denver that trained many classical dancers and teachers during his lifetime.”

Rebecca Dean

Rebecca Dean

Coppélia tells the story of a beautiful mechanical doll. She is one of the many dolls built by Dr. Coppélius, and she is so realistic that many of the village folk think that she is the daughter of Dr. Coppélius. This ballet was first performed in 1870, and it was an overwhelming success. In many ways paved the way for future developments in classical ballet of the nineteenth century. Certainly, the music by Delibes is as perfect for ballet as is the music of Tchaikovsky. It is spirited, and extremely sensitive, with a lyricism that inspires motion. In addition, each character in the ballet has its own leitmotif to identify them, but in this ballet, the leitmotif also serves to help set the mood for each character. Léo Delibes is, in some ways, one of the unsung French composers, known primarily for his Opera Lakmé and this particular ballet. As a composer, he was certainly familiar with Slavic music and Eastern European dance forms, and for the first time in the history of ballet, Delibes makes use of the Hungarian folk dance, the czardas.

Chelsea Cusack and Ariel Gilliam

Chelsea Cusack and Ariel Gilliam

In the original production of this ballet – and, mind you, it was 1870 – a genuine mechanical doll was used

The ballet opens with the heroine, Swanilda and her fiancé Franz, in the village square. There, they observe the beautiful mechanical doll Coppélia and her eccentric creator, Dr. Coppélius. The mayor of the village is there as well, and invites them to dance a mazurka. Franz cannot help but admire the beautiful doll which causes intense jealousy from his fiancée, Swanilda. She ignores him and dances with her friends, while all the men on stage dance with Coppélia, not realizing that she is a doll.

In this production, Swanilda was danced by Doina Florea and Franz was danced by Kevin Burke. Both Burke and Florea are exceptional dancers, who have long experience on stage. Florea sets herself a part from the other dancers by the graceful movements of her arms. They are never still which gives her the impression that she is moving all the time. Through his impeccable dramatic sense, Kevin Burke portrays the very masculine hero of the plot, who becomes totally smitten and rendered speechless by the appearance of Coppélia. Coppélia was danced by Rebecca Dean who has performed throughout the United States and is the Ballet Director of the Colorado School of Dance and Artistic Director of the Colorado Youth Ballet Company. Hopefully, many of you readers have attended ballet performances by Ballet Ariel, and have been attracted by the agility, skill, and dramatic ability of the dancers. All of the dancers have remarkable strength and I was very impressed with Rebecca Dean’s ability to maintain the many rigid positions that her mechanical doll character require. She has incredible muscle control, and held the position without a tremble. When she danced, that rigidity became fluid and graceful unless she was trying to mimic the mechanical movements of the doll.

Peter Strand was excellent as Dr. Coppélius, artfully portraying him as an almost unbalanced individual wishing to show off his collection of mechanical dolls, while jealously protecting them. His portrayal of Dr. Coppélius made it seem that he, too, was in love with Coppélia.



As this marvelous ballet proceeds, Swanilda and her friends break in to Dr. Coppélius’ toy shop, where they are amazed by the dancing ability of all the dolls. Swanilda is relieved and delighted to find that Coppélia is a doll and not a live person. She notices that her fiancé, Franz, is also trying to break into the toy shop in pursuit of Coppélia, so she quickly dons Coppélia’s dress and takes her place. As the Second Act draws to a close, Dr. Coppélius discovers them, and realizes that Swanilda is dressed in Coppélia’s clothes, and has damaged his favorite doll beyond repair.

In Act III, Swanilda and Franz are about to be married, and they are surrounded by the villagers who help in their celebration. The mayor arrives to perform the ceremony, and is confronted by Dr. Coppélius a carrying the ruined doll, Coppélia. Swanilda apologizes profusely, and notices in the group of friends that a mysterious woman has appeared. The strange woman bears a marked resemblance to Coppélia, and she introduces her to Dr. Coppélius.

Throughout this ballet, there was some wonderful dancing. In Act I there was a beautiful pas de deux danced by Doina Florea and Kevin Burke. Florea also had a marvelous solo in Act II that really attracted my attention because of its difficulty and grace. In Act III, her group of friends dancing ability revealed the depth of skill that is inherent in this company. Briana Bosch, Claire Snyder, Ariel Gilliam, and Alfred Smith really attracted my attention, not only because of their dancing ability, but for their dramatic ability as well. I hasten to point out that this kind of dramatic ability in dance certainly helps to highlight and reinforce the dramatic ability of Rebecca Dean, Peter Strand, Doina Florea, and Kevin Burke. Everyone on stage reacted to the storyline of the ballet, and it is that which draws in the audience and makes them feel as if they were participating as well.

Paul Noel Fiorino was perfect as the mayor, portraying him as a self-important individual who was smug in his governmental position.

I was also immensely impressed and touched by the performance of Meredith Dake, who portrayed the broken doll, Coppélia. She was lifeless and limp every second she was on stage, and had to be supported by Dr. Coppélius and, in turn, the mayor. It seems to me that would take quite a bit of courage because one is not moving at all, and becomes totally dependent on the strength and stamina of one’s partner. It was very poignant.

The choreography for Saturday’s performance was done by Ilena Norton based on the work by the original choreographer, Arthur Saint-Leon. Additional choreography was done by Gregory Gonzales and Oleg Dedogryuk. Oleg Dedogryuk is an Artistic Director for the Annual Nutcracker of Parker and Head Faculty Member of the Colorado School of Dance. Certainly, all of you readers must be familiar by this time with Gregory Gonzales who has danced with the Colorado Ballet for many years, as well as dance companies around the United States.

This performance clearly demonstrates the appreciation that Denver has for ballet. It also demonstrates that fine dancers can be found without traveling outside the state’s boundaries. This was a beautiful ballet performance, not only because of Delibes’s music, but because of the ability of the dancers as well.

Doina Florea

Doina Florea


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